Primetime Hypermedia

Hypermedia: Why Now?

by Jon Udell

The umbrella title for this series of columns--Primetime Hypermedia--suggests that, for what used to be called multimedia, the long march through the desert is finally over. The mission of these columns is to explore and document the promised land that we are now starting to colonize. But here's a question I've been asked a lot lately: Why now?

The question is subtler than you might think because, in some ways, little has changed. We've had audio and video on the internet for nearly as long as there's been an internet. At times I feel like an archaeologist hacking through underbrush to find artifacts left by an almost-forgotten tribe. When I investigated SMIL, for example, the trail I followed had been blazed years before. The video genre I've rechristened screencasting has antecedents that go back a decade or more, as does the audio genre now called podcasting. So, again, why now?

Two reasons. The platform for hypermedia has matured, and so has the publishing environment. In both cases, obvious and not-so-obvious factors are in play.

The Hypermedia Platform

If you've tried to push the AV envelope in any way--for example by recording a podcast on Skype--you know that we're not quite there yet. Even on mainstream Windows and OS X systems, it's a challenge to get different AV devices and applications to play nicely together. It will take at least another turn of the crank--Avalon, Tiger--before this gets sorted out.

The balkanization of media formats and players is another thorn in our side. It's crazy that publishers of media content feel obliged to offer three formats. And it's equally nuts that consumers of media content can't yet rely on standard ways to do the most routine things: positioning, selection, cut-and-paste.

But while there's plenty to gripe about, we shouldn't lose sight of the quiet miracle that has--fairly recently--driven media playback capability into the heart of the installed base. I sometimes still see the "soundcard required" disclaimer but, for the most part, publishers can just assume that an internet-connected computer will play sound as well as video. This was a long time coming, but we're finally there.

Broadband connectivity is another piece of the platform that's now falling into place. When I last visited my parents, I was mortified to find that their 1.5 Mbps cable internet setup put my 384 Kbps DSL to shame. When I got home I called my DSL provider and told them I'd be switching to Time-Warner's RoadRunner service. Their response was to lower their price and bump me to 3 Mbps. That's just one anecdote, but if 2004 wasn't the tipping-point year for downloading multi-megabyte media files, then 2005 is. Fatter pipes boost the rate at which we can download these files; ever-more-pervasive WiFi expands the number of locations from which we can do so; BitTorrent spreads the load.

Downloading is an interesting term, though. The distinction between streaming media files and downloading them has blurred recently, and this is one of the not-so-obvious factors driving the rise of hypermedia. When I post a 20MB podcast in MP3 format, or a 20MB screencast using Flash, QuickTime, or Windows Media, people who listen to or watch these programs will often say that they are "streaming" them. In reality they are progressively downloading them, and this has profound implications both for producers and for consumers of media.

For producers, it means that no special server-side apparatus is required. If you can upload content to your blog, you're in the club. It's true that in order to transmit live audio or video you need a streaming server, such as Helix or DSS/QSS (Apples Darwin/QuickTime Streaming Server) See the fifth installment of this series for more on that topic. But in the vast majority of cases that's overkill. Using progressive download, producers can create the illusion of streaming while avoiding nearly all of the hassle.

For listeners and viewers, meanwhile, progressive download offers a prized capability not available with "true" streaming. I refer, of course, to Right-Click-Save-Link-As. Streams can't be saved, at least not easily. Moving them to portable players involves gymnastics that I'll describe in a future column. Yet that's precisely what everyone wants to do now that we're fully accessorized with iPods or their not-so-cool brethren. When Steve Gillmor first started talking about the iPod as a platform I pushed back but, mea culpa, he was right. The mainstream adoption of these gadgets doesn't define the hypermedia platform, but it does radically extend it.

The Hypermedia Environment

The hypermedia platform, at once old and new, finds itself in an environment that is likewise both old and new. In this age of acceleration, of course, what's old or new is highly relative. We think of the World Wide Web as an old thing, and blogging as a new thing. But that's another blurry distinction. I built my first website in 1995, and I've been publishing my own RSS feed since 1999. Looking back from the present day, those two eras seem almost equally distant.

As has often been pointed out over the years, blogging was already implicit in the first incarnation of the Web. The ur-browser didn't just read web pages, it also wrote them. Syndication, a la RSS, wasn't part of the original deal. It's tempting to say that RSS was the catalyst for the explosion of mainstream blogging we've seen lately. But even though I'm a leading RSS evangelist and a hardcore RSS addict, I'm not sure that's true. Geeks get RSS. But for large numbers of civilians it remains an optional feature of the blogosphere. I cringe at the thought of visiting each of the hundreds blogs I subscribe to. But if like many you only follow a handful of blogs, it's not unreasonable to do things the old-fashioned way--visit the sites and read them. As I've watched my non-geek friends and relatives start to colonize the blogosphere, I've been forced to admit just how optional RSS is, even today.

It's the same with podcasting. According to the official story, podcasting began when Dave Winer added the <enclosure> tag to RSS and Adam Curry hacked together the first iPodder script. Their vision of automatic download to the iPod is indeed compelling. For most people, arguably, it's even more compelling than the automated reduction of many blogs to a single digest of changes. Even so, lots of folks reap the benefits of the podcasting revolution without closing the loop between RSS and the iPod. In fact, I'm one of them. Though I've contributed audio content to the podosphere, as a consumer of podcasts I'm still on the trailing edge. One of these days I'll own an iPod or equivalent hard-disk-based player, and I'll enjoy the complete podcatching experience. But for now, good old-fashioned Right-Click-Save-Link-As to my Creative MuVo takes me where I need to go today.

Ubiquitous playback capability has made the hypermedia platform ready for prime time. We don't talk about the "multimedia PC" any more, we just take it for granted. Similarly, ubiquitous personal publishing has made the hypermedia environment ready for prime time. We don't talk about the "two-way Web" any more, we just take it for granted.

Clearly blogging has created the environment in which hypermedia is now flourishing. But if we focus only on the role of RSS, we miss broader trends. One, as I mentioned in the first installment, is the way that Google and the blogosphere make media content discoverable. MP3s and SWFs are opaque; they can't (yet) be directly indexed and searched. When we inject these opaque objects into the Web by way of the blogosphere, though, we tap into two powerful modes of discovery. First, the blog postings we wrap around our media files, captured by Google and others, create an indirect index. Second, the blogosphere's incessant chatter builds word-of-mouth reputation. Thanks to these twin forces, the path from microphone or camera to audience is nearly frictionless.

Another key trend is Creative Commons. With text, the right of fair use has always sustained a remix culture. Not so with rich media. When I included a remix of Thomas Barnett's PopTech lecture in an episode of the Gillmor Gang, and when Phil Windley in turn remixed that episode, we acted with a clear conscience and no fear. uses a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs license for all its audio content. It's true that producer Doug Kaye has recently discussed switching to a Creative Commons sampling license, to encourage sponsorship, but even under those terms Phil and I would have been able to remix fearlessly.

Freedoms we have always enjoyed in the realm of text are only now, thanks to Creative Commons, becoming available in the realm of rich media. As a result, pent-up energy is now being released. It's still early in the game, but my hunch is that we'll soon see a tidal wave of creative work.

According to Gardner Campbell, who is an English professor and assistant VP for teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, we're entering a new age of media literacy. A New York Times story recently asked: "Is a cinema studies degree the new MBA?" Citing that story, Campbell wrote:

The NYT piece says nothing about blogging, podcasts, RSS, or even the internet per se. Instead, it's about a deeper kind of media literacy, one that not only trains students to sit back and dissect the rhetoric of, say, television commercials, but provides the deeper training in expressiveness within these media that we in the academy have long taken for granted in the realm of English composition. Dating back to the humanist revolution in education that occurred in the European Renaissance, the idea here is that merely reading isn't enough. Deep skill in reading cannot be attained without deep skill in writing. Thus we teach not only attention to others' words, but adaptive skills and strategies in creating those words ourselves. Now, students are going to film school not simply to land a job in the film industry, but to master the skills and strategies of sophisticated visual and aural communications. Moviemaking 101 sits right alongside English Comp. [Gardner Campbell: Podcasting, rich media, film school, literacy]

Campbell also connects the Times story to a podcast in which I argue that many writers who have so far worked mainly with text--whether in print or online, for personal or professional purposes--will soon find themselves recording and editing audio and video content as well.

It's exciting to live in a time when technical and cultural forces converge on a new synthesis of old themes. For networks of rich media, that time is now.

Jon Udell is an author, information architect, software developer, and new media innovator.

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